written by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
On November 21, 1980, an unnatural disaster took place in South Louisiana. It took place in a small and scenic body of water called Lake Peigneur near the Gulf Coast. A crew on a Texaco oil drilling rig on Lake Peigneur was drilling down to a depth of 1,230 feet. Suddenly, the drill seized up and, in their attempts to free it, the crew turned an 11 ft deep fresh water lake into a 1,230 ft deep salt water lake. They had accidentally drilled into a salt mine. The shocker is that the crew and Texaco were aware of the mine. At the time, it was still being mined. Upon loosening the drill, the crew created a hole between the lake and the salt mine. The water from the lake began leaking into the mine. As the water continued to leak, it began to dissolve the salt and weaken the structure of the mine. This lead to collapse. A sink hole was created, which in turn, created a whirlpool in the lake which sucked every structure in the lake (Lake Peigneur was dotted with rigs) and much of the surrounding land into the whole. There was a canal which connected the Lake to The Gulf of Mexico. Up until that day, water always flowed from the lake to the gulf. The sink hole/whirlpool created by the errant drill reversed the flow of the canal, pulling salt water from the Gulf of Mexico into Lake Peigneur. Miraculously, all the men on site at Lake Peigneur that day survived, including the Texaco drilling crew and all the miners in the salt mine.
I relate the story to you in order to raise a point: Man is an thoughtlessly aggressive son of a bitch. The story of Lake Peigneur is proof. Man just takes, takes, takes until disaster strikes.
Much of the work currently on view at Gallery 549 in Downtown Lafayette, LA concerns the aggressive hubris of man. The work is from artist Dutch Kepler. He has created a suite of paintings which fuse a mystical narrative about man’s drives and his exploitation of nature with the aesthetic concerns of Abstract Expressionism shot through the lens of a Pop sensibility.
Kepler’s current works are somewhat of a revelation. While much of his work in the past has involved a running engagement with the natural world in the form of depictions of animals and landscapes in a loose, Pop style, Kepler’s new work is deeper and more resonant. Kepler loosened his tether to mimesis, and in the process created works as bold and aggressive as his current content. Gone are the easy readings that go along with recognizable depictions. They have been replaced by a challenge to not only read symbols, but also gestures.
The predominant symbol in most of these works is the arrow. It is a symbol of both conscious and unconscious drives. It is a symbol of phallic aggression, obsessive need or want, and penetration. The arrow is the spear, as well: the symbol of war and the hunt. It is also, a symbol of virility. In this sense, the arrow becomes the serpent and is made use of in some works that are a bit more illustrative and narrative in structure. Other animals pop up as well. In a limpid painting titled “Septopus,” a depiction of an octupus with only seven tentacles hovers on the bottom of its canvas. With its usual eight legs, the octopus is regarded as a symbol of the perfection of the unconscious, transcending beyond the limits of the personal or the individual. A seven-tentacled octopus seems somewhat less than perfection. The painting exudes an air of dreamy narcissism. Gazing into the watery work and, specifically, the “eyes” of the octopus, sets off a subtle recognition of self, similar to looking into a reflecting pool. Other animals that make their way into Kepler’s works on exhibit are two strikingly contemporary and impressive depictions of two Louisiana denizens: a crab and a crawfish, both up in arms and in defensive postures. The crawfish is all wispy gesture, and reads as both an icon and a phantasm. The crab presents a much more graphic face made up of camouflage, rising up from swirling “blades of grass.” The cosmic symbol of the crab is often associated with self-preservation, sensitivity and emotionality.
Moving past the symbols, what is most striking about much of his current work is the insistent, gestural profusion taking place on it. The energy and brashness of the work manifest from a plethora of marks that convey speed and forcefulness. Zips, blobs, streaks, smears, scumbles, scrapings, drips and washes scream the urgent nature of Kepler’s expression. Colored marks jump, pounce and ricochet across the canvas with deKooning-like self assurance and exuberance or Guston-like brutality. The brightness and graphic punch of the works tie in with Kepler’s other profession: Kepler was a former professor of graphic design at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Content, symbol, color and gesture collide and become the unified subject of the work. It is all pure, primal instinct and take, take, take. Arrows bear down on the meta-landscape like the thunderbolts of the Greek god Zeus or the drilling element that forced the disaster at Lake Peigneur. Man’s need to exploit nature is laid bare in a painting like “Double Dip,” which is pictured above. Ecological disaster becomes a wonky, science experiment in one painting. The image on it reminded me of pictures of factory run-off being pumped into bodies of water. Some of the paintings, take on a more cosmic and mystical bent. These are generally the ones in which the arrow becomes the serpent, and man’s drives take on a more ideal aspect. In these works, gesture generally becomes subordinate to symbol.
All in all, the works Kepler exhibits in the show allude to a compendium of ideas about man’s place in the world that is both transcendental and hellish. It is cosmic and motionless with eternity in some works. In others, it is fragmented and frenetic with palimpsests of instinctual drives, unconscious motives and desire that rear their heads in the river of time and materiality. It is up to the viewer to make something of it all – to maybe form an opinion about what kind of place he or she occupies in the world – to wonder about whether one treads lightly on the world like the serpent or bears down on it like the drill. However, one thing is certain: with this body of work, Kepler has tread across a hallowed threshold, the one that separates mere artists from the masterful ones in full control of their titanic expression. That is a move up, rather than down.
The solo exhibition “Dutch Kepler” is on view at Gallery 549, 549 Jefferson St., Lafayette, LA 70501 through the month of October until the week of 2nd Saturday Artwalk in November. To arrange a viewing, call 1.337.593.0796
by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
It’s my feeling that “louisianaesthetic” is beginning its existence at a historic and auspicious time: a nexus or a flashpoint. This statement may sound grandiose. However, if you look around yourself, turn on a television, surf the web or simply talk to your neighbors, friends or loved ones, you, dear reader, will be made aware that you live in a time of social, political, spiritual, economic and ecological upheaval that is unprecedented in the history of civilization. What ignited the Arab Spring and the economic protests across Europe earlier this year has materialized in America. It is the drive for social and economic justice, and it is being expressed at this moment in the Occupy Movement, which first began on New York City’s Wall Street and has quickly spread to other locations across the nation. The internet and its social networks are acting as furnaces to these protests for justice, dignity and human rights. Stoking them, digital technology is allowing the participants the opportunity to build a national community rapidly across the traditional barriers of geography, social class, race and ideology to find common ground against corruption and injustice. The proof lies in the fact that the Occupy Movement has attracted both hipsters, grandmothers and the AFLCIO into its fold.
Within the Occupy Movement, art has played its part in the airing of grievances. Within the movement you won’t find any Venus de Milo‘s, any Mona Lisa’s, and you certainly won’t find any of Damien Hirst‘s diamond encrusted skulls (the newly crowned symbols of a new gilded age). What you will find is an art committee in charge of presenting a visual/aesthetic face to the public through the promotion of signage. Many of the participants in this movement are artists themselves, and they all recognize the importance of art in their protests. Throughout history, it has been the artist’s job to be the canary in the coal mine or the barometer for social health. Today our artists have begun to speak en masse, to pronounce that the prognosis for our society is dire, and that change must occur.
One of the most moving things I have seen in the past few weeks is a blog on Tumblr titled “We Are the 99%.” It is a reference to the absurdly immense financial gap that exists between the elite 1% of our country who own and manipulate most of the capital of the nation and the rest of us 99% on the bottom who are struggling to stay afloat while the nation’s economy and infrastructure crumble. The idea behind the blog is simple: a visual record of some of the faces of the underclass with their stories and grievances scribbled on pieces of paper near their faces. What is striking about the blog is that the pics show a wide range of people of different, races, ages and creeds. Yet, all of them are struggling. One of the most heartbreaking posts I read was about a man whose family had been reduced to buying fish antibiotics from a pet store in order to self-medicate members of the family who fell sick but were unable to seek out proper medical attention due to a lack of health insurance. Through reading this blog, I actually found out that among the underclass, this is becoming a common way to get some semblance of medication for an illness. FISH ANTIBIOTICS!!! Another thing I have recently discovered is that 1 in 4 children in this country suffers from malnourishment because his or her parents cannot always afford to put food on the table. 1 IN 4!!! The problem is so pervasive that the children’s television program “Sesame Street” introduced America to a muppet named Lily in a special on PBS while I was beginning to write this post. Lily is poverty stricken and doesn’t always know where and when she’ll see her next meal. A bunch of signs, a blog and a muppet don’t exactly add-up to fine art, but they are all creative outlets that are moving people to open their eyes and press for change.
It is my hope that in some way “Louisianaesthetic” will have a similar impact on whoever uses it. I have created it to be an open resource for the public to dive into contemporary art in South Louisiana. It is not meant to be only idle entertainment. It is meant to be a continuous barometer of society and culture within South Louisiana through the lens of art.
At this moment in our history, we need visionaries. We need people who can show us where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. We need artists and their art to articulate and express what it means to be alive today. When you connect with the present through art, you become transformed. This is because art is knowledge and power. Art is refined, human consciousness. It is the vessel in which we put all of our grief, all of our triumph, all of our wisdom, all of our fears, and all of our hopes.
Personally, I feel that South Louisiana art has something special to teach us and the rest of the nation. It is often cited that the temperament of the people of South Louisiana is different from the rest of the South and the rest of the country. We come from a people who have made it through hard times and still managed to celebrate life every day, through their music, food, festivals. Our cultural heritage and “joie de vivre’ was forged by them. We carry on those traditions. I definitely feel that these things are carried on in our contemporary art. The very best of South Louisiana contemporary art is about crying and laughing, mourning and dancing, dying and singing. It is about living fully in the face of adversity. It is about innovation and adaptivity. In this light, I find it no coincidence that contemporary art in Louisiana is on the rise within the state, as well as within the nation and the world. It is the aesthetic knowledge we crave at this moment. The knowledge that despite everything falling apart around us, we can still celebrate life lived. We can express. We can innovate. We can adapt.
In the coming weeks, a big event will take place on a smaller scale. Prospect New Orleans 2, the second installment of America’s only international biennial, will take place across the city. An annex will also be in place in Lafayette. Prospect 1 was an artistic juggernaut, encompassing an unprecedented amount of exhibitions from international artists across the city. Due to budgetary restraints and political infighting, Prospect will return in an incarnation that is much smaller and much later than was expected at the end of the last one. However, my guess is that it will be much more focused. It will be leaner. It will be wiser. And it will show the world that despite all the hardships that Louisiana has bore, it still knows how to celebrate life and present a vision and a sensibility by which to live, love, work, feast, play, dance and die. “Louisianaesthetic” will be here to chart and shape the trajectory of an art whose time has come.